• Post category:Movies
  • Post last modified:July 7, 2020

Last Black Man in San Francisco: A Concerned Love Letter


There’s a key scene in this film where the leading character, Jimmie Fails, is sitting on a bus in San Francisco listening to two young women (one of them played by Thora Birch) saying bad things about the city. Jimmie tells them that you don’t get to hate San Francisco unless you love it. The women frown, but we can tell that Birch’s character sort of understands what Jimmie is saying. That’s exactly my sentiment. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a love letter to San Francisco that can’t stop pointing out its flaws – but also makes another very important point: don’t get trapped in the past.

Sneaking around a pretty Victorian house
When we first meet Jimmie and his buddy Mont Allen (Jonathan Majors), they look very suspicious indeed. Two young, Black men sneaking around a pretty Victorian house in the Fillmore District. The filmmakers are only having fun with our prejudices though; it turns out these men are interested in taking care of the house in ways that the current tenants are not. Since no one’s painting the windows or looking after the garden, Jimmie and Mont are stepping up. The tenants don’t like it and beg them to stop, but Jimmie in particular doesn’t care to listen.

The house used to belong to his grandfather who built it in 1946; the bond cannot be broken. Jimmie is currently living at Mont’s place, together with his friend’s blind grandfather (Danny Glover). The relationship with his own father is not good. When the tenants who live in the Fillmore house are forced to move out, Jimmie and Mont quickly occupy it and treat it as their home… but it’s never that easy, of course.

Inspired by Jimmie Fails’s life
This film has roots in San Francisco as thick as those of a redwood tree. Jimmie Fails essentially plays himself, or a version of himself, and the story dates back to when he and director Joe Talbot were teenagers, dreaming of making movies one day. They came up with the story for this film at that time, partly inspired by Fails’s life. Eventually, they reached out to Barry Jenkins whose first film was shot in San Francisco. He had valuable advice for the two youngsters and helped them get started. A successful Kickstarter campaign helped Fails and Talbot fund the movie and it was picked up for distribution at the Sundance festival.

That’s a shortened, very simplified description of the process, but it’s hard not to be impressed right from the first shot of the film – this doesn’t look like an unpolished gem, but the work of a very mature filmmaker. The Last Black Man in San Francisco has a lot of issues to address. The film is clearly concerned about the downside to gentrification, the loss of a house’s, a neighborhood’s, or even a city’s soul, to ignorant young people who are making far too much money in Silicon Valley for their own good. At the same time, as we learn the truth about the Fillmore house and Jimmie, it is obvious that there is a danger in not looking ahead to your next chapter in life.

Movingly, Mont is using his talent for the theater and drama to make Jimmie see the light, but it’s also what he employs when the macho culture that’s poisoning young African-American men also threatens him. This sensitive side, evident in Jenkins’s Moonlight (2016), also shows in the film’s treatment of a familiar phenomenon, the absent father.

It’s an engaging film, irresistibly sweet, with a poetic touch. It is also visually arresting throughout, cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra’s camera capturing the streets, people and changing climate of San Francisco in unforgettable ways.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco 2019-U.S. 121 min. Color. Produced by Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Joe Talbot, Khaliah Neal, Christina Oh. Directed by Joe Talbot. Screenplay: Joe Talbot, Rob Richert. Cinematography: Adam Newport-Berra. Cast: Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors (Montgomery ”Mont” Allen), Danny Glover (Grandpa Allen), Tichina Arnold, Rob Morgan, Mike Epps… Thora Birch.

Trivia: Co-executive produced by Brad Pitt.

Last word: “Obviously, our experiences are different: His parents are white, and my family is black. He was around. It wasn’t like he had to come in and study the black community. He was already there. A lot of his friends were black. We all knew about everyone’s culture growing up in San Francisco, but not so much anymore because it’s changed so much. He’s also very well educated on San Francisco. His dad wrote a book called ‘Season of the Witch’ that tells a lot of the black history that is important and central to San Francisco. He’s telling his friend’s story, and he’s black. I totally get the question, but we’ve known each other for so long that I can’t imagine anyone else telling the story.” (Fails on Talbot, Slant)



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